Michael Lingner, Franz Erhard Walther
Invocation of our Ideas on Works
Replies by Franz Erhard Walther from a conversation about his new works with Michael Lingner
Questions by Michael Lingner to answers by Franz Erhard Walther
Do we still know what a work is, and can we still believe that aesthetic conditions are inherent in certain qualities that the artists lends to a material?
What has made this opinion suspect?
Can there still be art if the artist no longer produces the work but only creates the instrumental requirements that can lead to the production of a work?
Where is the work to be located then - in our heads?
Can the layman acting with the instruments take over responsibility for the shaping of the work in the artist's stead - and what could stimulate him to do this?
How is it then possible to speak with qualitative significance of a "work", or to speak of a "work" at all?
How is the inner, mental shaping of this work imaginable?
What is this work made of?
Can the mental working material, that is available only in the dimension of time, be organized in a way that is analogous with material that exists in space?
What can still be aesthetic about this form of organization?
Are we not dealing simply with the pure art of memory that excludes any experience?
Do bodily and figurative things still exist, things that are vivid as images and plastic spaces, or only abstract conditions that cannot be presented except as concepts?
Is it possible to build a work that is happening now from ideas laden with the whole ballast of their historical use?
How can ideas become forms and forms ideas?
Does everything have to remain fragmentary, or do processes have a totality as well?
Without an answer: how is art possible if there is neither direct contact between material and consciousness nor between various systems of consciousness, but only observation and participation in communication?
Replies by Franz Erhard Walther from a conversation about his new works with Michael Lingner
Invocation of our Ideas on Works
The following thoughts are Franz Erhard Walther's first public statements about his most recent work. In a conversation with Michael Lingner, who adapted about three hours of tape recordings to produce the authorized text presented here, Franz Erhard Walther tries to approach his own work through a process of argument. Important connections in terms of work and art history are discussed as well as special technical and formal particularities of the new work, and the general artistic problems and intentions they present are examined. This produces many revealing statements, and in the process the reader is given a glimpse of the artist trying to come to terms with a new complex of work for which he has not yet found a valid name.
Let us quote the following remark made by Michael Lingner in his interview as an introduction and first comment: "I have the impression that we are dealing here with a further intensification of the 'open work of art'. So far this notion has been used to define modern art's intention to open up the work for the viewer in such a way that he or she can help to create it by mental or real aesthetic action. Now the artist seems to see himself confronted with the phenomenon of openness, and therefore also uncertainty, within his work in a new way. Aesthetic programmes or social conventions that artistic practice following the concept of the avant-garde could take at least as a negative guide are today no longer at its disposal when making decisions about content, form and concepts. While the oeuvre of modern art formulated itself by finding its rules, post-modern artistic production is setting out to search - for them? ln order to be able to discuss this development, which can also be seen in more recent works by artists like Imi Knoebel, Peter Halley or also Gerhard Richter, I consider that reformulation of the concept of taste is required."
The items in my new complex of work, from which parts were shown for the first time in 1991 in Hamburg and New York, are very similar to each other when seen superficially. In spite of their common formal appearance one can distinguish two different types of work. So far they include first the work "Gesang des Lagers", consisting of seventeen formations, then about fifty individual works put together from several elements of different colours and shapes, whose arrangement on the wall is fixed once and for all. In the case of "Gesang des Lagers" it is very much the other way round. Each of the seventeen pieces of which it is made up is based upon a single formal canon that changes only as far as colour is concerned. Apart from its proper storage position the seven basic forms that make it up can be related to each other quite differently from occasion to occasion. In principle, new configurations can always be developed with reference to the architectural features of each exhibition room.
All the pieces, or rather their individual cube-like elements, are 11 or 13 cm deep and constructed in such a way that when they are hung the loops provided for this purpose are folded behind the shape. Contrary to the case with the "Wandformationen" (Wallformations) they remain concealed, as the devices would be intrusive here, especially when the parts are hung at eye level, and not 'piled up'. The structure of the pieces is equally inconspicuous. They are kept in the intended shape in such a way that the form is not geometrically precise, but seems as if it were modelled. I take particular pleasure in unfolding and modelling the pieces on the wall, and I also do it with particular care. I see it as an essential component of the work, and for me it helps to express the idea of its transitory and fleeting nature, which continues to be central. Beyond this, renouncing a static construction makes the whole rather more economical in many respects.
Similarly to the "Wallformations", the formal vocabulary for the new works comes from the "work drawings" and "diagrams" of the sixties and early seventies. I am and always have been concerned to give what was then deliberately kept abstract a vivid presence. In the case of the "Wallformations" the sculptural impressions were stronger, but now I have based myself much more on spatial relationships. In doing this I took up in particular the proportions and outlines of textual sections like headings, paragraphs and columns. Text configurations are created that can also be read without type as a pattern-structure of shapes and colours. I like it when the textual character of the shapes remains conscious and they are allotted meanings like for example title, surtitle, subtitle, introduction etc. In order to avoid an excessively formal way of looking at things, as may be appropriate for artists working in such a way, I have given the works names like "condensed speech", "sculptural text", "needs to be read" or "from the context".
I myself know very little about the actual motive, the background for the emergence of my work. But I can attempt to describe a few observations of my own, and it would be best to begin with what has changed. Unlike my early artistic phase, where I was much exercised by art-historical connections and especially by contemporary art, references like this play an increasingly small part after the "1. Werksatz". I do not really know what I should react to today, as I cannot properly recognize the contours of those things that should be counted as part of contemporary art. It seems to me that the things formulated by artists, whether they are of my generation or the younger ones, in terms of questions, arguments and results, are very disparate and probably have very little to do with the present. I cannot say that it does not interest me at all. It is more that it does not touch me, simply does not release anything. But it seems that something is in preparation.
And yet it is by no means the case that I am exclusively fixated upon my own work. If I were to be fascinated by an artistic conception today I could presumably do nothing other than react to it. But within the current situation I relate essentially to my own work-story, which definitely continues, unbroken by the new work. The direction that began with the rediscovery of the visual in "40 Sockel" is now reinforced in that I am actually moving in territory bordering on the picture. In the first instance this represents a personal artistic problem, but - I believe - it cannot slip off into the private sphere, given the background of my working context. That would be dangerous, as I continue to be convinced that art can only prove itself as such in the context of its history. For me one of the most important criteria of quality is whether a work can be judged as being necessary within the logic of art development. But that can be established only in retrospect.
I cannot ask if work is historically necessary while I am actually doing it, but I have to rely on what is clear to me at that particular moment and what I see as artistically convincing. A most positive indication of this is when I start to have a strong feeling of inner satisfaction and of weariness with what has hitherto existed. Almost ten years work on the "Wallformations" finally made me want to do something different with increasing intensity. I did not want to produce nothing but variations on this kind of work. Of course I did not just arbitrarily dismiss it from one day to the next: the change of working approach was brewing for three or four years, until I finally found an artistic response to the "Wallformations".
I cannot really explain why the textual outlines struck me over and over again in the "diagrams" and "work drawings" when I was selecting them for exhibitions. I then even redrew some of them and put them aside, without any particular intention. The textual outlines impinged upon me as image-forms for the first time in the context of the screen-print series "Werkfigur", started in 1986 and subsequently completed, without any kind of plastic formulation having been foreseeable at the beginning. In any case a latent need to acquire greater image-quality obviously started to assert itself then.
Of course I do not yet know whether what I am trying to do with the new work is viable in a similar way to what has in the mean time proved to be the case for the "Wallformations". When you have been working for as long as I have then doubts do crop up all the time: actually everything has already been done, and the possibilities are exhausted. But on the other hand I find that after satisfaction I experience fascination again, and the curiosity to try out something new, which makes me fairly certain that there is something in the project after all. I know my momentary feeling between certainty and uncertainty very well, a feeling that I had at the beginning of most periods of my work, and that has so far never disappointed me. This exciting contradiction is also conveyed to me in the reactions of others. When my exhibition in the John Weber Gallery in New York opened, Joseph Kosuth was there as well, and said, "I have to think about it", while Haim Steinbach came up to me and found it all "really fantastic, great".
Just as little as then, when I started with the "Wallformations" in about 1980 and was reproached with regressing into the conventional, do I fear now that I am betraying my previous approach to art - which I would not even mind if it were absolutely necessary. But now as then my interest circles around the question that has always been fundamental to me: what a work is, even though there is not doubt that the element of action within the new work is now nothing more than a virtual one. On the other hand it cannot be denied that to a certain extent I am contradicting what I have always postulated. If what I formulated with the "1. Werksatz" is seen as the core of my work I am at best moving a considerable distance away from my earlier intentions. Perhaps my present work really is a transitional phase to something quite different.
"Gesang des Lagers" shows most clearly that the new works are a transitional event not just within the history of my work but also as such. It can exist in quite different conditions, taking the concept 'Lager' (store) in each case in a new meaning that cannot be described unambiguously. Here 'Lager', in contrast with the "1. Werksatz", where this work-constitution was only secondary as far as actual use was concerned, cannot be seen in any case as an improper condition of the work so to speak, but means the core of the idea. This artistic independence of the storage form had already appeared earlier in my work, for instance in the piles, spatial elements, pathways, a little less obviously in the books, but without achieving such a level of complexity.
It is interesting that in the new works the purely functional use of the storage form that was intended only for transport purposes is by no means in conflict with artistic aspirations. I could have made a convincing exhibition of the open transport cases with the parts stored in them without any difficulty at all. But I then did first present them in the Galerie Vera Munro in the storage form, compressed into a block. Simply doing this gives the pieces an image-character that they definitely did not have before. But as the material is exactly the same, in fact the original stored condition continues to exist. The pieces are neither pure images nor expressly a storage form, but are probably best described as representatives of potential pictures.
The storage condition can be further transformed when the seven forms of each of the pieces, previously fitted together into a block, are drawn apart on the wall. The relationship with space and the enhanced object-quality make the works entirely three-dimensional on the one hand and they thus also represent something from a sculptural point of view. But to the extent that when an arrangement is made, ideas of form and proportion come into play, or perhaps questions of contrast and weighting, in other words classical elements of composition, the image-quality is again enhanced. In principle the possibilities for arrangement are infinite here. The crucial factor for me is that a compelling connection is produced in any given situation. I am open to its being produced by playful, accidental groupings or on the basis of a rigid concept.
But openness must not be confused with arbitrariness. For example, I can hardly imagine that the large shape that is always on the right in the storage situation should be unconnectedly placed on the left when the work is spread out and hung on the wall. In most groupings it plays the part of a weight. Quite apart from the architectural conditions on each occasion, the possible combinations when arranging the work are also restricted by the changing colours of the seven basic shapes. Originally it was only on the basis of these colour variations, which seemed interesting to me, and which I took a great deal of time and care in choosing, that I arrived at the seventeen figurations that make up "Gesang des Lagers" at all. In any case I find from experience that colour often makes a particular arrangement inevitable. If I put a different-coloured shape in the same place the shape becomes inconsistent and no longer convinces me. The arrangements are created within an inner dialogue between the colours, shapes and their surroundings, in which every piece must correspond with the other sixteen in its configuration. In order to introduce another element for determining the arrangement I am thinking at the moment of giving every exhibition a particular theme, which could spark off certain ideas for possible combinations on each occasion.
In comparison with the new work it has certainly become clear that the "Wallformations", although their image-quality has consistently been emphasized, have an unambiguous sculptural quality. In their case the visual element plays a much smaller part. For example, colours have been used mainly for plastic or architectural reasons. Fundamentally the "Wallformations" are bases to which the human body and the actions that it produces must be added. For this reason their proportions are derived from the body and relate to it, so that they are experienced bodily, they can be read, as it were, by the body. The fact that the new works are flatter and thus less sculptural by no means makes them into pure pictures. If that had been my intention I would have made them flatter still, and not hollow inside, which means that they have to be stiffened and modelled. Besides I would certainly not have stuck to the same basic forms for all seventeen pieces.
And so I was also concerned to relativize image-quality. In the spirit of my maxim "Pictures are in your head" I have no reason to make pictures, but I want to create conditions that produce a mental image. In my works I am concerned with an invocation of our conception of works that has to be heard by the viewer. The image can be created only in dialogue. But this act of creation is unthinkable as art if one does not attempt to define what an 'image' is in the first place. For this reason I tried in the manner that I have described to keep my work balanced between the traditional modes of description: picture, sculpture or storage form.
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